Talladega, Ala. Jeff Gordon keeps surprising himself.
Gordon, the first driver to make a qualifying attempt Saturday for the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, posted a lap of 192.069 mph and then watched 51 other drivers fail to knock him off the pole.
David Gilliland, last fall's pole winner at Talladega, matched Gordon's qualifying speed. But the four-time NASCAR champion was awarded his third pole in nine tries this year and 60th of his career by virtue of being ahead of the second-year driver in the points.
"I'm shocked," Gordon said. "I really didn't expect to stay on top after going out first. But I want to be up front every time we're on the racetrack. And especially here."
With NASCAR requiring horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates at Talladega, the evenly matched cars usually race two- and threewide. The slightest mistake can often lead to a big multicar crash.
This race may be even more dangerous than usual because of the track, which was repaved before the race last fall and is still smooth and full of grip. There is always a premium on being out front as much as possible, but maybe even more today.
"Yeah, you can move from the back to the front, but you've still got to avoid that big wreck," Gordon said. "And, with what I saw in practice yesterday, the bump-drafting is going to be pretty severe because this track has so much grip and it's so comfortable and so smooth that it only allows you to push the car and push everything that much harder and be that much more aggressive. So I want to be as far forward as I possibly can from the start to the end."
Gilliland, who didn't even have a full-time NASCAR ride at this time last year, was just happy to have a good qualifying position and wasn't very disappointed by tying Gordon.
"It's just amazing on a 2.66-mile track, with the wind and everything that comes into play, that a Ford and a Chevy can run that close," Gilliland said. "I went back and thought about if I could do anything different and I thought, 'Not really.'
"(Crew chief) Todd Parrott told me over the radio that we were tied and he was a little in shock, too."
It will only be Gilliland's third plate race, but he's looking forward to it - even knowing how quickly things can change.
"Last year, I was on the pole here and didn't lead the first lap," Gilliland said.
Denny Hamlin, third at 191.551, is a little concerned about what will happen today.
"That practice yesterday was probably the wildest I've ever seen in any superspeedway practice and it's only going to get worse tomorrow," Hamlin said.
It was a topsy-turvy day in qualifying, with some less familiar names near the front and some of the sport's biggest stars near the back of the 43-car field.
Sterling Marlin, off to a slow start in 2007, qualified fourth, followed by Gilliland's teammate Ricky Rudd, Kenny Wallace, Casey Mears, 2006 Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Scott Riggs and rookie David Ragan.
Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart will start 32nd, former series champion Bobby Labonte 35th, five-time Talladega champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. 36th, the three Richard Childress Racing entries - Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton - 40th through 42nd and former series champion Dale Jarrett 43rd.
The poor starting position didn't faze Earnhardt.
"We just haven't got that emphasis on qualifying and trying to learn to make the car go fast for two laps," Junior said.